Headwear manufacturers, Olney Headwear Ltd, are based in Old Bedford Road, Luton, which has been the centre of hat making in the United Kingdom for nearly three hundred years, and for a 100 years the name of Olney has been synonymous with the production of a large range of quality headwear predominately for men, but as the company expanded, the range has grown to include ladies, uniform, and industrial hats and caps.
The Olney family story began in 1914, when with a world war looming Albert Olney then aged 37 left his secure job as a foreman blocker with Horace Slade & Sons, the largest producer of straw boaters in the country at St.Albans, Hertfordshire, to start his own business. He would have undoubtedly been very proud that one hundred years later his great grandsons would be the fourth generation of the family carrying on the business and producing quality headwear that has always been the hallmark of the company.
It should not come as a surprise that Albert decided to take up hat manufacturing as both his grandfather Thomas, born in Westoning Bedfordshire in 1827, and father, Frederick, were employed in the hat industry as a straw plait bleacher and blocker respectively.
Albert moved to Luton and bought premises in York Street, and with cash in short supply set about installing the plant himself, some of which was still in use when the company vacated the premises in 1975 to move to a larger and more effi cient factory which the company still occupies to this day. In 1928 as the company had grown there was a need for new investment, so shares were issued and the company became a Limited company with share capital.
The company then began producing their trademark item which was a straw boater with the trademark ‘The York Straw Hat’ featuring York Minster as its logo. Although the straw boater was the primary product of the company it obviously needed to diversify, this came about as the boater was being worn by Public Schools, including Harrow, Windsor and Eton. So school uniform hats became an important part of the company sales, panama and straw hats for the summer and velour and felt for the winter. This led to an export boom to the then British colonies principally, South Africa, Zimbabwe (Rhodesia) and other African markets, and also to the West Indies.
As the company prospered Albert asked his brother Tom to join the company as manager and later at the incorporation as a Director. As the company was using large quantities of ribbon and braid Albert decided to take on an agency from J.H. vom Baur & Son of Ronsdorf in Germany, this agreement was very successful until a tariff was imposed on German goods entering the United Kingdom, however, not to be deterred it was agreed that a joint venture should be set up and a manufacturing base built in England.
This duly happened in 1933 and a factory was built at St. Albans and Th e British Ribbon Company was formed with a joint board of English and German directors. Two of the German company’s senior employees took up residence in St. Albans and Albert’s eldest son Harold joined the company and was immediately sent to Germany to study the production methods.
During the nineteen thirties fashions were changing rapidly and although straw boaters were still being produced in large quantities, by now the company was the only maker of straw boaters left in the country and men’s panama and straw summer hats began to play an increasingly large part in the companies production. However in 1935 the most famous wearer of Olney straw boaters the French screen star Maurice Chevalier, came to Luton to appear at the Alma Theatre. The local newspaper recorded that crowds of people mobbed the star as he made a guest appearance and the doors of the theatre had to be closed to prevent injury to the crowd. All the members of the Olney family working in the company were present at the presentation when Mr. Tom Olney gave the star six boaters which had been especially made by the company employees in there own time. Mr Chevalier signed a photograph stating, To Mr Olney for a straw hat which is a straw hat. The party then left the theatre to go to the factory to see how boaters were made, followed by a large crowd of onlookers.
In 1936 the next generation of the family joined the company, Albert’s son Roy and Tom’s son Douglas. However this was to last only a short time as both men volunteered for the armed forces on the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939. Although the war years proved difficult for the hat company, as imported raw materials were often hard to obtain, the company under Tom managed to carry on business as usual and indeed prospered.
The Ribbon Company however, had a different story the German employees were interned and sent to the Isle of Man, indeed one employee was rumoured to be a spy, whilst the German companies interest was acquired by The Custodian of Enemy Property and the company was directed to undertake war work making webbing and parachute harness’ for the armed forces.
In 1948 Roy and Douglas became directors of the company, as the first generation of the company prepared to retire and they took on the day to day running of the company. Whilst this was the golden age for the schoolwear business the pool of skilled labour was diminishing and new entrants to the industry were few. This was brought about by the higher wages being offered by the local motor industry. During 1952 Albert sadly passed away and not long after Tom took a well earned retirement.
Roy’s son Michael the third generation joined the company in 1956 as an apprentice working on the shop floor and learning the processes of hat making which was to prove invaluable in later years.
The local football club Luton Town FC had always been known as ‘The Hatters’ and in 1959 they reached the final of the Football Association Cup. This brought about a huge demand for straw boaters and the company van full of straw boaters made a daily trip to the local men’s outfitters to satisfy the demand. The scene at Wembley Stadium was described by the local newspaper as a sea of straw boaters with the black and white band of the clubs colours. Unfortunately the club lost 2-1 to Nottingham Forest, but this did not stop the supporters welcoming the players back as heroes.
It was not until 1960 that any new machinery was brought in to the company when a French machine and fabric to mould synthetic hats was acquired, primarily to manufacture men’s summer hats, but ironically the men’s hats did not sell well but it was found that large quantities of white hats were being taken up as hygiene headwear in the food industry and for supermarkets. As the company already had an existing market supplying straw boaters to the butchery market this was an ideal entry in to a new market.
It was during this time that Michael was appointed production director and was given the go ahead to modernise production. A visit to Italy resulted in the first automatic hydraulic hat blocking presses being imported from Michelagnoli of Signa, Firenze marking the start of a large scale investment programme to update production.
Hand trimming largely died out with the introduction of tacking machines, and in a further development Michelagnoli was able to supply moulding machines which replaced the slow French machines and enabled the production of hygiene headwear at the rate of one hat every twenty seconds. As wholesalers were now becoming a thing of the past the decision was taken to initially market school wear direct to the retail and Nicholas, Michael’s brother joined the company as sales manager.
In 1976 the company had relocated to its present situation in Old Bedford Road to a larger and more efficient factory to meet the growing demand for its increased range of hats which had now expanded to include soft hats the production of which had been assisted when the company employed a designer and staff from a firm which had ceased trading.
The fourth generation of the family Andrew, Michael’s son joined the company in 1983 after having completed an engineering apprenticeship bringing technical and new production skills.
A momentous year for the company was 1989 when a local manufacturer of men’s tweed hats was taken over, this further complemented the range of hats the company was able to produce, and the following year a new sales manager with experience of selling direct to the retail was engaged and the company began selling its complete range direct to the retail market. To ensure a strong financial base for the expanded company shortly after the change of direction, David, Michael’s second son, who had been away at university, and had also qualified as a chartered accountant, joined the company.
Having undertaken a large scale renovation of the current premises, today, the two directors are confidently taking the company forward with a diverse range of quality products.
In 2014 the company proudly celebrates its centenary, and with the continued dedication of a loyal and committed staff, will continue to look to grow and develop further markets, championing UK quality made headwear.